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Tuesday, October 8, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Free speech set in stone: Controversy halts sale of tiles outside Redmond library

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

A battle over the existence of God, freedom of speech and the separation of church and state is being fought on the steps of the Redmond Regional Library — literally.

What began as a benign fund-raising effort — selling engraved paving tiles — was abandoned by the Friends of the Redmond Library last month after it spiraled out of control, despite the hundreds of blank tiles that remain to be sold.

Anti-religious messages, including one that begins "God Kills Babies," appeared adjacent to pro-Christian messages such as "God Can Change Life."

A hands-off approach to content even resulted in one tile advertising the name and phone number of a landscaping company. Other tiles retain more traditional memorial messages and personal affirmations, such as "Haley, believe in yourself! I love you, mom."

Redmond residents Nancy and Michael Herring are appalled that their six-inch by six-inch memorial to Michael's deceased father, Vietnam veteran Gen. Bernard Herring, appears next to the "God Kills Babies" message. The Herrings say they have been unable to show the memorial to Bernard's widow because they are concerned that she would find the adjacent message too disturbing. "Who wants to visualize murdered babies?" said Nancy Herring.

The controversy began two years ago when Matthew J. Barry of Issaquah noticed that several religious tiles had appeared outside the new library building.

A campaigner for the separation of church and state, Barry was disturbed by the religious messages and wrote to Bill Ptacek, director of the King County Library System. Ptacek replied that the library grounds serve as a public forum and that the county could not restrict speech there.

To protest, Barry bought four tiles, all of which now appear in front of the library. They read: "First Amendment: Keep Church & State Separate," "Jehovah, Allah, Zeus, Thor & Brahma. They're All Myths," "Evolution Is A Fact. Read About It," and "God Kills Babies. Read 1 Samuel 15:3. And God Is Love?"

Barry wrote about his protest in the "Freethought Today" newspaper published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. In the article, he said he never would have dreamed of placing such inscriptions on a library's grounds under normal circumstances.

"However, if Christians (or any other religious folks) decide to shove their religion down my throat, and if the government facilitates their efforts, then I'm going to play ball, too. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em," Barry wrote.

"Unfortunately, it turned into a real goofy deal," Ptacek said last week. "The last thing in the world we wanted to do was offend anyone. We never anticipated this sort of thing."

What started as a fun way for people to make their mark and raise money was altered by the "really unfortunate" incident, he said.

Ptacek said his initial response to Barry, who could not be reached for this article, was prompted by a strong feeling that a library is a gathering place for people with many and varied points of view, and that as an institution it values intellectual freedom.

"Obviously, some people have taken that to the extreme," said Ptacek, who like others, bought his own tile.

After Barry's tiles appeared, the county placed a disclaimer plaque on the library wall: "The views expressed on the tiles are those of the sponsors, not the King County Library System."

But the controversy kept gathering steam. Word of the "God Kills" message and Barry's article spread through Internet sites. The nonprofit Friends became inundated with requests from around the country by people seeking to buy vulgar inscriptions.

Last year, the county sought a legal opinion on whether it is obliged to accept every message. The lawyers said the library could impose its own rules, Ptacek said.

In perhaps the region's most prominent display of inscribed tiles, at the Pike Place Market, organizers specified that they retained the right to refuse messages on the grounds of poor taste, said Marlys Erickson, director of the nonprofit Pike Place Market Foundation.

The foundation sold 45,000 tiles in the 1980s without anybody wanting to inscribe controversial messages such as those at the Redmond library, Erickson said.

In Redmond, the Herrings complained to library staff, then wrote a letter and made a subsequent phone call to the Friends group. They say moving the tile might be a solution.

They are still waiting for a reply — though this week group president Miguel Llanos said he would contact the Herrings to apologize for the delay and to try to find a quick solution.

Nancy Herring said she has liberal views and believes that freedom of speech helps make America great — she just doesn't think a civic building is an appropriate place for potentially offensive comments.

She is also concerned that others buying tiles for charity might find a similar dilemma.

Llanos said he recently warned the Horace Mann Elementary School in Redmond to retain editorial control during its upcoming tile fund-raising effort.

Michael Herring, meanwhile, continues to wait for the opportunity to show his mother how much her late husband is missed.

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com.

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